This Sunday we complete Matthew 5, the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. Although the Lectionary will only give us parts of the next two chapters, we get every verse of Matthew 5. It is exquisite.
Our readings start with God saying in Leviticus, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” Our Gospel concludes, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The key is in our second reading, where St. Paul says, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God?” God dwells in us, and so we share in his holiness.
It is important to see the continuity between Leviticus and the Gospel. Last week Jesus said, “I have come not to abolish the law or the prophets . . . but to fulfill.” This week we are tempted to doubt that claim.
Our reading begins, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The second half begins, “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” We get the idea that the Old Testament is all about vengeance, and Jesus has come to abolish it.
To the contrary, the Old Testament took us half way. Eye for an eye was not an encouragement to poke people’s eyes out. It meant, if someone pokes out your eye, you’re not allowed to kill his whole family in retaliation; and if no one has poked your eye out, you oughtn’t to poke out anyone else’s. These laws from Leviticus are not an encouragement to retaliation, but a restraint on it.
So too, this week’s reading from Leviticus reminds us that the main teaching of the Old Law was “love your neighbor” – it just didn’t extend that love to the enemy. “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people,” we will hear. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But Jesus goes much further: “turn the other cheek.” He goes so far that we are tempted to think he is
The heart of the matter is in his first response: “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.” Can he really mean that?
Now, Greek has three words for evil. One is inherent wickedness. The second is degeneracy – falling into inherent wickedness. But the word here focuses not on the evil of the person himself, but on his effect. Jesus does not say, “Let the wicked person be wicked.” What he says is, “when someone, or even some thing, deprives you, let it go.”
The same word appears two other important places in the Sermon on the Mount. It is at the end of the Beatitudes (thus returning us again to that fundamental teaching): Blessed are you when they say all depriving words against you, when their words strip you.
But it is also at the end of the Lord’s Prayer: deliver us from being deprived. Throughout the Beatitudes, why are we blessed? Because the one thing the deprivers cannot take from us is God. And if we have him, we have everything.
Jesus’s commentary on this “do not resist the depriver” nicely focuses on doubling. In an eye for an eye, there is balance: his eye, your eye. But in Jesus, instead of taking his eye, you give him your other one. If they slap one cheek, let them slap the other. If they sue you for your tunic, give them your cloak. If they demand one mile, go two. Doubling.
And the final doubling: “You have heard it said, You shall love your neighbor . . . . But I say to you, love your enemies.” The Old Law took us half way, Jesus takes us all the way.
That’s the real meaning of the last words, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The Greek word for “perfect” means “all the way to the end.” Don’t go half way into love. Go all the way – as God goes all the way.
And that’s the reason we can go all the way: because God goes all the way.
We always doubt the prudence of what Jesus says. I’m going to have no cloak!
But in this week’s reading from First Corinthians, St. Paul warns us against “the wisdom of this world.” Hanging on to your cloak won’t get you so far.
The wisdom of God is that “everything belongs to you . . . and you to Christ, and Christ to God.” We are “the temple of God, and . . . the Spirit of God dwells in you.” If you have God, why are you fighting over the cloak? Go all the way, love to the end, let God be your all.
Where do you fight for worldly goods and forget the presence of God? How do you live the wisdom of this age?